A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”I was a good-looking boy and I brought him back to life. I may have taken advantage of his good nature, but why not? I flirted with him, made sure that I remained sexually ambiguous at all times. Always a possibility but never a certainty. I led him on to the point where he was so overwhelmed with desire that I think there was literally nothing he wouldn’t have done for me, had I asked. And then, when I got everything I needed from him, I wrote….”
What’s wrong with that?
Well, a lot, but then the world is full of givers and users, and sometimes the givers become users, and when circumstances become dire enough, even users can sometimes become givers. We all have users in our life, those people who always remind us of how good a friend we are when they need something, but when we need something in return, suddenly they are not as good a friend as they professed to be. Hopefully, none of you have a Maurice Swift in your life.
Other reviewers make comparisons with Patricia Highsmith novels, which is spot on, but Swift reminds me the most of the main character (I’d tell you his name, but part of the subterfuge of the novel is his identity) in A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. If you like novels involving sociopaths, who are infinitely fascinating because of their ability to walk among us and seem reasonably normal, then definitely put the Levin on your reading list.
Now the question becomes, as you get to know Swift, is he a more garden variety sociopath, or is he a full out psychopath?
The book explores the idea of harm, or should I say degrees of inflicted harm? Is stealing ideas really wrong? Does a man’s life story belong to him once he has told it to someone else? Is taking a good idea poorly written by another writer and turning it into a much better presented story really immoral? After all, isn’t the idea just lost in bad prose until someone, say a Maurice Swift, who is a good writer, can salvage it for literature?
Swift’s father is a plumber by trade, and the family intends for Maurice to be a plumber, as well. To them, writers only come from well-to-do families who can afford to give their offspring an Oxford level education. There is this great scene that, in varying degrees, plays out in families all over the world when a child comes to their parents and says I want to be a writer, painter, dancer, or musician. Mention any of those professions, and it will send a finger of fear down any middle class patriarch’s back. Swift makes the mistake of mentioning to his father D. H. Lawrence’s modest background before becoming a well respected author as an example that a plumber’s son, too, can become a writer.
”’That D. H. Lawrence only wrote filth,’ replied his father. ‘Naked men wrestling with each other and posh pieces having it off with the gamekeeper. Queer stuff, if you ask me. Written for poofters with fancy ideas. I’ll not have any of it in the house.’”
I think Dad might have a flair for writing himself. ”Posh pieces having it off with the gamekeeper.” It got me all tingly.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when Maurice Swift, as the companion to yet another writer he is using to gain influence in the publishing industry, visits Gore Vidal. Now, Gore appreciates a chiseled pair of buttocks and a rigid, muscular stomach as much as the next gay man, but he is no one’s fool. His interactions with Swift are simply marvelous. The sexual teasing and charm that Swift has used so effectively on other male writers is more of an irritation to Gore, who may have seen some of himself in the foppish hair, good looks of Swift. (Of course, Gore had been better looking, whittier, and more elegant.).
”He felt a sudden desire to anger-fuck the boy, then toss him over the cliffs into the sea below, to watch as his body bounced off the rocks and his bones smashed into a thousand pieces.”
Goodness, now there is a frightening view of the mind of an aging man who finds the manipulations of youthful, mercenary exuberance to be something to shatter rather than preserve. Of course, if Swift had been more polished and less overtly, coldly calculating and had displayed more naive charm, then maybe he might have had more success lowering Gore’s defenses.
If Swift had been born with a creative mind, would he have been so feral in his interactions with his mentors, his “loved” ones, his proteges? If plot ideas were bubbling out of him like an erupting Vesuvius, would he have felt so much desperation? Is he willing to let himself become more psychopath than sociopath? I don’t think Swift would have ever been very likeable or a model of human behavior, but maybe if he had been blessed with an inventive well spring of a mind, his impact on those he associates with would be less catastrophic.
”’I suppose it’s difficult to talk about a work in progress. You never know who might steal your ideas.’”
There is a reason why writers are careful about discussing plots or letting too many people read their work before it is finished. You don’t have to know someone like Maurice Swift to feel the need to be careful. I remember once in college I was writing some fiction for fun and someone I knew, with whom I shared it, took all the characters’ names in my story and used them in a story he was working on. It was really WEIRD. I kind of laughed it off, but at the same time I felt violated, like something had been stolen from me. He acted like it was no big deal.
Unbridled ambition can be a positive thing in the lives of those surrounding it, or it can be a fast moving car that leaves people it touches crushed, bereft, and walking down a lonely road, watching the taillights disappear over the horizon. This is a cautionary tale about the hazards of beauty without substance. Do not be fooled.
I can’t really imagine a serious reader or writer who would not like this book. Given the numerous points of potential discussion this novel provides, it would make a great book club book. How far would you go to be successful? You may not go as far as Maurice Swift, but what degree is acceptable? Maybe you will find out things about your book club members you never knew before!
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